In Season 3, Episode 4 of the HBO series The Wire, Major “Bunny” Colvin, a senior black police commander assigned to Baltimore’s violent western police district, is interviewed by two white officials from Johns Hopkins University who want to persuade him to leave the city police force to run the school’s security force. One of the recruiters gets up, saying he has to “tinkle” in the “little boys room.” The other recruiter, a former policeman himself, explains to an incredulous Colvin, “You’ll get used to these academic types, Bunny, especially when you get that first paycheck.” Colvin decides to stay with the City of Baltimore, where he organizes, in response to relentless political pressure to get the murder rate down, a zone of de facto legalized drugs, into which he tries to push all of his district’s drug traffickers and users. (The new residents take to calling the neighborhood “Hamsterdam.”) The season ends with Colvin being unceremoniously fired when his scheme, despite its success in cutting the murder rate, is exposed by the press.
Having taught at Johns Hopkins for nearly a decade and being a frequent visitor to its various medical facilities scattered throughout Baltimore, I experienced this plotline as quite a revelation. Most people connected with the university drive through the city, a seeming wasteland of boarded-up row houses and vacant lots, with their doors locked and windows up. Their Baltimore is the gleaming hospitals, Inner Harbor and leafy Homewood campus. For Major Colvin, by contrast, Johns Hopkins University might as well be on Mars, a fairytale world totally unreachable by the residents of the city he knows best. In Season 4, Colvin, now a civilian, tries to save a young man named Namond from life in the streets. There is a very painful episode when he and his wife take Namond to an upscale restaurant in the Inner Harbor, and Namond is frozen in embarrassment, not knowing how to deal with the waiter, the menu or the salad fork set in front of him.
Seeing your world reflected through the eyes of such a teenager is only one of the great achievements of The Wire, which, over the years, has attracted a cult-like following and also an unusual degree of intellectual respect. The series of sixty episodes, which aired from 2002 to 2008, is now the subject of numerous courses in sociology departments and film schools around the country. David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who worked the crime beat and wrote a book based on it called Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, produced the series. Simon reportedly took the series to HBO because the other networks wouldn’t produce a crime series so relentlessly pessimistic in both story and tone.
The Wire’s story centers around two Baltimore detectives, Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) and Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce), who are trying to put away a street-corner drug gang led by Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris). They succeed in this by the end of Season 3, only to have the Barksdale gang pushed aside by a much more ruthless and homicidal group led by the up-and-coming Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector). While the cops achieve some tactical gains against the new, badder bad guys through wiretaps and surveillance, it becomes clear that the war will be endless because the social conditions producing the drug trade are still there: bad schools that No Child Left Behind can’t reform, and no path into legitimate employment for inner-city residents.
Working-class whites are not exempted: Season 2 portrays in depressing detail the impact of de-industrialization on a group of Polish-American dockworkers, who get sucked into the same vortex of crime and drugs. The final season centers around the Baltimore Sun itself. The newspaper has recently been taken over by a large media corporation happy to compromise journalistic standards in favor of sensationalism. The series ends with the paper’s star reporter accepting a Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories on the homeless that he had personally faked. Cynical indeed.
The series has been lavishly praised for its often painful realism. A number of gang members in it were recruited from the streets of Baltimore, like the androgynous Felicia “Snoop” Pearson, hitman for the Stanfield organization, who in real life was indeed a drug dealer once convicted of second-degree murderer. Several Maryland politicians, including former Governor Robert Ehrlich and Senator Barbara Mikulski, make cameo appearances. Most of the street slang is as profane as it is impenetrable; a lot of white people evidently watch the show with the English subtitles on. Every character is precisely identified with regard to race, ethnicity and religion, from the sleazy Jewish lawyer defending the Barksdale organization, to the Greek-Israeli-Ukrainian gang trafficking in prostitutes from Eastern Europe, to the African-American state senator using race to defend himself against corruption charges.
The most impressive achievement of The Wire, however, is the way it humanizes an entire segment of American society that most white Americans would just as soon ignore (and generally do). By humanize, I do not mean sentimentalize or whitewash. Many of the drug dealers, as well as some of the cops, are vicious people, and the viewer gets to watch them inflict unspeakable cruelties on their victims in ugly detail. But we soon come to realize that most of the characters living in the bad parts of Baltimore are trapped there by the simple bad luck of where and when they were born. There is a naive adolescent, Wallace, who in Season 1 is seen working at the bottom of the Barksdale organization while trying to take care of his younger siblings in a household with neither a mother nor father present. Wallace has misgivings about the betrayals he sees around him and is consequently killed by his close friends on orders from above. Seeing his protégé murdered in this fashion leads Avon Barkdale’s nephew D’Angelo (Larry Gilliard) to drop out of the organization, taking the rap for his uncle and sitting out his life in jail in preference to so compromised a life in the streets. He, too, is regarded as a potential snitch and is murdered while in prison on his uncle’s orders. There is an amazing scene toward the end of Season 5 when Snoop is about to be executed by Michael, a young man leading his own rebellion against the Stanfield organization. She realizes that her life is about to end, just as she ended the life of so many others. She looks at herself in the sideview mirror of the car and asks, “How my hair look, Mike?”, just before he pulls the trigger.
So while the world of The Wire is populated by individuals who make moral choices for themselves, the actual outcomes they arrive at are in the end sharply bracketed by the twisted institutions that surround them. The black mayor of Baltimore, his black police commissioner and white deputy chief of operations don’t actually care much about quality of life in the inner city; they focus instead on getting homicide numbers down so that crime can’t be used against them or their bosses in the next election. The white voters in the suburbs think the solution to the problem is more police, more jails and tougher punishments. The schools have teachers who vary from careerists to dedicated individuals who want to do the right thing, but they don’t have the resources they need to operate effectively in a culture shaped by the drug gangs. The white stevedores would like to maintain their traditions of union solidarity, but they can’t prevail in the face of the relentless job loss that is undercutting their way of life. Above all, very few of the politicians have incentives to pay attention to either group. Tommy Carcetti, the Martin O’Malley figure who wins election as a white mayor of Baltimore by making crime his issue, has by the end of the series moved to the Governor’s office, where he now needs to cater to a wealthy white suburban electorate.
One of the fundaments of American political culture is the notion that North America started out as a terra nullis, an empty land to which settlers could come and make new lives for themselves. Americans accept instinctively the Lockean notion that the “industrious and rational” will combine their labor with the mere things of nature and create private property and wealth for themselves, while the “quarrelsome and contentious” will not. Democratic political and legal institutions were constructed to protect what James Madison called the “diversity of the faculties of men” and their consequent unequal ability to acquire property. Americans thus distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving poor in a way that Europeans, schooled in the historical reality of class differences, generally do not. The idea of social mobility is fundamental to both America’s self-image and to its ongoing success: I may be poor today, but through ability and hard work I can ensure that my children or grandchildren will have better lives. Americans therefore care much less than Europeans about actual socioeconomic inequality; what they care about is a level playing field that allows for intergenerational social mobility. As the experience of countless immigrant groups to the United States has demonstrated, this myth has also been the reality for very many Americans.
The one big exception to this happy immigrant story has always been African Americans, who did not come to North America voluntarily and who, up until the Civil Rights era in the 1960s, were subject to overt legal discrimination in many parts of the country. Blacks were the only social group that faced caste-like barriers to mobility. Their social and economic liberation and subsequent advancement required political power to achieve, first in a Civil War that ended slavery and left more than 600,000 Americans dead, and then in a long struggle against legal segregation whose end required strenuous enforcement by Federal authorities.
The Tea Party ideology that glorifies individual self-help and points to the dangers of an overweening national government conveniently forgets this history—or perhaps some of them do remember it, which is why they are so opposed to the Affordable Care Act, many of whose beneficiaries would be black. Even for those not on the libertarian Right, there tends to be a view that the end of legal segregation leveled the playing field, that government efforts like the Great Society’s War on Poverty were a counterproductive failure, and that there is little more that can usefully be done with regard to inner-city social policy.
What The Wire does so effectively is to remind us that while individual ability and talent do matter, and that our character and moral choices matter as well, we are nevertheless very much products of a social environment over which we as individuals have very little influence. The drug trade, single-parent families, unsafe neighborhoods and poor, under-resourced schools are the results less of poor individual choices than of dysfunctional institutions. If we are going to change any of the outcomes on the ground, we cannot rely simply on self-help.
This is no less true now of parts of the white working class than of inner-city blacks. As David Simon put it in an interview, The Wire “is a meditation on the death of work and the betrayal of the American working class, it is a deliberate argument that unencumbered capitalism is not a substitute for social policy.”1 Welfare reform in the mid-1990s was supposed to end the perverse incentives by which the government was subsidizing illegitimacy and intergenerational poverty. Some say welfare reform went too far. Others say it did not go far enough. But just about everyone must agree in the face of the evidence that, a decade and a half after passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, crime, drugs and single-parent families are still very much with us.
None of these observations belie that fact that we have seen the emergence of a large black middle class, that we elected a black President in 2008, or that the nature of race relations has changed enormously for the better over the past two or three generations. Yet the world of The Wire has not disappeared. If anything, it has gotten worse with our prolonged recession and the continuing retreat of low-skill jobs. What has changed is the almost total absence of a national conversation about these issues. Perhaps because he is our first black President, Barack Obama has studiously avoided discussions of race and poverty. Democrats more generally have found any talk of social policy a toxic issue in a political climate where the government is seen by Republicans as the main threat to our well-being.
Our conviction that social policy is doomed to failure increasingly demonstrates the parochialism of our national discussion. The fact that North Americans have been largely brain-dead on this issue for much of the past generation has not stopped people in other parts of the world from innovating. Poverty rates and inequality have dropped over the past decade across Latin America, for long the world’s most unequal region, through a combination of economic growth and intelligently crafted conditional cash transfer programs like Oportunidades in Mexico and Bolsa Família in Brazil. What these countries have that America lacks, surprisingly, is not just innovative policy, but a much greater political consensus that some degree of strong government action—and, yes, wealth redistribution—is necessary to undermine the nexus of drugs, poverty and crime. Americans, by contrast, have had to sneak redistribution through the back door by means of artifices like subsidized mortgage lending—a path that was neither efficient nor, as we have seen, safe for the economy as a whole. The country needs to address the problem of the underclass forthrightly and on its own terms.
The favorite character of many of the fans of The Wire (myself included) is Omar Little (Michael K. Williams), a gay, shotgun-wielding coal-black dude with corncob rows and a long scar across his face. Omar is a Robin Hood-like character who lives off of robbery, but only from drug dealers. He goes on a rampage against the Barksdale organization when they sadistically kill his boyfriend, and in the final season he is busy trying to single-handedly dismantle Marlo Stanfield’s gang. He is a quintessential American individualist, turning state’s evidence for his own purposes but being no patsy of the police, able to survive with few friends in the toughest of tough environments. One sees the glimmer of a strong moral sense in him, not of a conventional bourgeois variety, but of an inner-directed belief in a life mission shaped by the impossible circumstances of his upbringing. It is thus perhaps fitting that in the last episode of the series, Omar is gunned down in a nearly meaningless encounter by a nine-year-old boy, the latest recruit in the unending wars of the underclass.
1Interview in The Guardian, January 13, 2005.